The Environmental Emergency: Beware the Responses


The October 2018 IPCC report and recent UN Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystems Services report present a dire prognosis for life on Earth. Without swift and decisive action around the world, rising sea levels, extreme weather events of increasing frequency and severity, and the collapse of food security will endanger and displace millions of people, while 1 million species are under threat of extinction from humans. The flood of scientific data, as well as literal floods and other catastrophic events, have resulted in a swelling of public protests and demands which politicians can no longer ignore. However, there are still many in positions of power who see environmental regulations as an assault on the free market, and are desperate to maintain the status quo by protecting the industries causing the most damage. They have well-developed and coordinated methods to distract, deflect and muddy the waters, all allowing them to avoid or delay taking action. Here are four common techniques to be aware of:

Casting Doubt

Doubt has long been a tool of the science denier. The scientific method functions through questioning and continually reaffirming results. When 98% of scientists agree on something this is a clear scientific consensus but it leaves a tiny chink in the armour which can then be exploited by sceptics or those who wish to discredit the science for their own gain. In their 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway detail how industry has repeatedly worked diligently to spread doubt on the science surrounding the dangers of tobacco and DDT, the causes of acid rain and the ozone hole, and anthropogenic climate change. In these case studies, it is often the same few scientists, such as physicist Fred Singer, who help provide theories opposing the consensus, driven by an ideology that sees environmentalism as a threat to capitalism, fearing regulation as the slippery slope to Communism. The voice of this small minority is then given credence and amplified by the media’s misguided attempt to present ‘balance’, creating false equivalence between ‘both sides’ of the science and meaning remedial action is delayed or avoided. Documents leaked in 2015 made it clear that companies including Exxon and Shell knew about the consequences of increased CO2 in the atmosphere in the 1970s and 80s but chose not to make the knowledge public, in spite of knowing it was “potentially catastrophic”. Instead, they spent millions of dollars on climate change denial think tanks and cast doubt on the growing consensus in science that fossil fuels were a danger to the future of the planet.

More insane attempts at changing the narrative around the science have included politicians bringing snowballs into the US Senate to ‘prove’ that the climate is not warming, and coal into the Australian parliament to show its not dangerous. Most of the public may not be misled by such blatant gaslighting but this is not always reflected in political outcomes, with the coal-brandishing Australian politician, Scott Morrison, now the country’s Prime Minister, winning re-election just this month.

Attacking the Messenger

When the science itself proves to be too strong to dispute, the attack turns to the motives and character of the scientist themselves.

In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson, warned of the dangers to the ecosystem posed by DDT used in pesticides. The chemical companies Du Pont and Velsicol threatened legal action against her publisher, but scientific peer review proved her conclusions to be accurate. This validation did not stop the personal attacks against Carson, even reaching the highest levels of politics, with former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson writing to President Eisenhower questioning why a “spinster” would be interested in genetics and concluding that she was “probably a Communist”. Carson’s work went on to inspire many in the burgeoning environmental protection movement, but accusations of Communism or Marxism have persisted as a repeated refrain, with environmentalism seen by some as a cover for anti-Capitalism and an attempt to bring down the free market through regulations.

Michael Mann is another example of a scientist who underwent years of personal and political attacks due to his work on climate change models. His 1998 ‘hockey stick graph’ clearly presented the link between the warming atmosphere and human activity. His work was met with leaked personal emails, accusations of falsification and manipulation of statistics, and the Attorney General of Virginia taking a legal battle for access to Mann’s personal records as far as the state’s Supreme Court. Ultimately, this was rejected as an abuse of power, Mann was cleared of all scientific wrongdoing, and the predictions he made have proven to be accurate. However, Mann himself has concerns that the harassment he underwent may deter other scientists in the field, and that that is exactly what was intended.

It is not only environmental scientists who are being attacked for their work, but also the activists working to raise public awareness and pressure governments into taking action. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes have seen young people taking to the streets all around the world, demanding that their governments secure their futures. Being a sixteen-year-old girl has not insulated Thunberg from attacks though. Political commentators and right-wing populists, including Germany’s AfD, have latched onto the fact that this eloquent, persuasive young women is on the autism spectrum, calling her, “weird” and “mentally challenged”, comparing her to “the Nazi youth”, and claiming she has a “psychosis”, is prone to “meltdowns”, and is “a patsy for scared and elitist adults”. In the face of such attacks, Greta has refused to back down, answering her critics head on and seeing the movement she has inspired continue to grow.

Attacking the Solutions

The environmental crisis is a global problem, with those on the frontline of the effects being at the mercy of the nations and industries causing the pollution while also having the capacity to halt the destruction. At a time when international cooperation on solutions is vital, the US announced in June 2017 their intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, as the global pact was not in line with their “America First” policy. So far, this has not led to any further fractures but some politicians in countries including Australia and Brazil have seen their own resistance to restrictions on the fossil fuel industry vindicated by the US’ actions and are also itching to have their nations withdraw.

In response to the IPPC’s 2018 warnings, Democrats in the US proposed solutions in their Green New Deal. It was an aspirational 14-page submission with a range of goals for environmental and social improvements: emissions reductions; infrastructure and transport investment and job creation; the retraining of workers to re-skill for renewable energy industries; clean water and air and healthy food for all; support for sustainable farming; the protection of ecosystems and public land and cooperation with indigenous people. Their jointly economic/ecologic solution runs counter to arguments that this is a zero sum situation and that taking action on the climate means an automatic loss of jobs and economic wellbeing. As a result, the responses from critics have been hyperbolic to say the least. Trump, who has never been a fan of wind turbines, railed against the Green New Deal’s proposed windmills by claiming they result in piles of dead bald eagles and that the noise they create gives you cancer. Both Trump Sr. and Jr., along with Senator Ted Cruz, have branded the “leftist crazy theory” as an attempt to ban pick-up trucks, planes and cows, leading to the end of hamburgers, and subjecting the country to Marxism.

This fear mongering that sustainable solutions to the environmental crisis mean losing the things we love, is not isolated to the US. In the lead up to the recent election in Australia, opposition leader Bill Shorten announced his party’s target for 50% of all new vehicles to be electric by 2030. In response, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that,“That’s the cheapest car Bill Shorten wants to make available to you to buy in the future, and I’ll tell you what — it’s not going to tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family”. He capitalised on the idea that, for many in the country, the thought of being deprived of their utes (utility vehicles), is a fate not to be countenanced.

Claiming There’s a Bright Side

Perhaps the most mindblowing response to the climate emergency is those arguing that there is no need to act as the environmental changes will have a net positive result, rather than negative. Back in the 1980s, when the fossil fuel industry’s own research predicted the coming climate catastrophe, they comforted themselves in the knowledge that this would not be as “significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine”.

More recently, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech at last month’s Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting made no mention at all of climate change, while the US sought to remove climate references from the joint statement before finally refusing to sign it. Instead, Pompeo took a deep dive into the positive opportunities for exploration and new access to lucrative resources provided by the rapidly receding ice, giddy in his excitement that, “steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days. Arctic sea lanes could come before — could [become] the 21st Century Suez and Panama Canals”.

Bringing us full circle from the “Merchants of Doubt” we come to the Heartland Institute. This is a conservative think tank, whose financial supporters have included Philip Morris and Exxon. Fred Singer is a director of their environmental policy and they have worked for years to discredit the science around the dangers of tobacco and to question the scientific consensus on climate change. They currently promote and work with, Gregory Wrightstone, a geologist -not a climate scientist – and consultant to the fracking industry. In Wrightstone’s self-published, non-peer-reviewed work, he argues, that yes, global temperatures and CO2 levels are increasing but that it is not as drastic as the predictions and indeed will be advantageous to humankind. He argues that increased CO2 will cause a greening of the planet, leading to increased agricultural yields and reduced wildfires, and that rising temperatures will result in fewer winter deaths in high latitudes. In spite of the lack of scientific weight behind his conclusions, his rosy view of the environmental emergency has been given a wide-reaching platform, from Fox News to Congressional committees.

29th May 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald